Never Underestimate the Receptionist

By: Stefanie Reeves, CAE

What if your boss told you, "Don't bother talking to the receptionist. She can't help your career"? One association pro learned early in her career that not every piece of advice is a good one.

This is a story about two people I'll call Mark and Susan, both of whom influenced my career in associations in very different ways. Mark was the government relations director at a small association I worked for. I was Mark's assistant. Susan was the receptionist. One of my "other duties as assigned" was to relieve Susan while at lunch and on breaks. We developed a friendly working relationship. She always asked how my day was going and if I needed any help with projects. I didn't think my relationship with Susan was an issue with my colleagues or superiors. Apparently, it was for Mark.

Is it true that only individuals at a certain level will have a positive impact on your career?

During a meeting about an upcoming project, Mark brought up Susan. "She's a nice person and all, but let's face it: Susan is the receptionist. If you want a career in government relations, talking to her won't help you," he said. Mark was aware of the phone situation, so he wasn't asking me to cut off all communication with her. Instead, he wanted to keep our interactions to the bare minimum. I was floored. How could I stop interacting with someone who had been nothing but helpful since my first day on the job?

Advice is a hard thing to manage. Sometimes what may appear as good intentions can hide ulterior motives. Mark never publicly disrespected Susan, but he thought she brought no value to my professional development. This speaks not only to the power of advice, but also the value of the individual. How do you see the people around you in your association? Is it true that only individuals at a certain level will have a positive impact on your career? If that's the case, what message are we sending to those individuals who haven't reached that level?

When we give advice, we must consider the best interest of those receiving it. I would like to think that no one intentionally gives bad advice, but by assuming that what worked for one person will work for someone else, we might be doing just that. Looking back, I'm sure Mark thought he was acting in my best interest. I was young and interested in starting my career, and he was my boss. He served as a mentor. Who was I to question him?

As far as I knew, Mark didn't have a personal issue with Susan. Yet, his comments indicated that a receptionist couldn't possibly relate to someone with career aspirations. What I wished he understood was that Susan was also a mentor to me and gave me valuable advice. While her advice had nothing to do with being a good lobbyist, it had everything to do with being a good association professional.

She encouraged me to learn every aspect of our small association, from publications to membership. Susan thought it would be important for me to know a little something about every office just in case future employers asked me to take on extra work. While I didn't see the significance of learning about association management software or chapter relations at the time, having that knowledge made me appreciate the association community as a whole.

In the end, I decided to follow Mark's advice out of fear that I would lose my job and damage my blossoming career. Yet, I still managed to maintain a good working relationship with Susan. It wasn't always easy, and there were times I wanted to tell her exactly what was going on. Somehow, though, we made it work.

When I left that job a year later, I took away two valuable lessons. One, your perceived status has nothing to do with your ultimate value. Two, be mindful of when to accept advice. If you know in your heart that it's wrong for you, no amount of rationalization can justify it.

Stefanie Reeves, CAE, is senior legislative and federal affairs officer, public interest directorate, at the American Psychological Association in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Stefanie Reeves, CAE